I can still remember planning a math lesson after school during my second year teaching. I turned to look out the window, hoping to get a view of the autumn afternoon. Instead I was met by my reflection. It was pitch black outside and there I was, sitting at a table under fluorescent light. How long had I been sitting there?

I was stuck. That week we were working on the properties of multiplication. While some students were understanding the topic right away (and probably would have without my help) the others were all over the map. Since I mostly had a surface understanding of the topic myself, I did not know where to start. It was paralyzing. On top of that, the last few lessons had not gone all that well. I had followed the textbook, but couldn’t follow my students’ thinking or misconceptions very well. Now, in front of me, were all the possible directions to take the lesson, many practice worksheets to choose from, and a worry that my students would still be mostly confused by the end of the lesson. How would they even be able to approach the end of the chapter test?

This wasn’t the only time I’d gotten stuck like this and wouldn’t be the last. On these evenings I’d wonder, How could my colleagues be at home? What magic did these other teachers have teaching math?

Over the years I learned some strategies from colleagues, professional books and blogs, workshops, and just trying things out as a math learner myself. Here are three strategies that built my confidence and helped me focus on what matters. I’m hoping they may help you too.

I do the work my students will do.

Taking the journey I will ask my students to embark on is not only helpful, it can be really enjoyable. It gives me a sense of what thinking students might do, what students might say, and therefore, what small group instruction I might offer during the lesson. Doing the work myself ends up making preparing for a lesson much easier.

This practice helps me feel more prepared because I gain a perspective of the student experience. It’s very different than imagining how a problem might go, instead I can create a clear view of the process by reflecting on my thinking as I go. Being metacognitive can highlight specific strategies I will offer in the lesson.

I may even use the tools and materials students will use. This creates an opportunity to create a math notebook entry to share as well. Students have a chance to see my process as a mathematician, engaged in the same practice as they are.

Navigating the work in this way also offers me an opportunity to understand the nuances of a topic. I remember trying this strategy as I prepared to teach two-digit addition to my second grade class. It was a topic I figured was fairly straightforward so I never bothered to go through the process. Yet doing the problems myself brought me an entirely new level of understanding. Try it, no matter how simple you think the topic might be.

I think in terms of “priority” rather than “time.”

Great teachers are master prioritizers. Their awareness allows them to be intentional and efficient. They have the wide view of what matters and they conserve their energy by focusing on those things. Instead of gazing at themselves in the late night window of their classroom like I was used to doing, these teachers could look at their reflection in the mirror as they prepare for bed.

One mentor of mine shared with me how she prioritized certain themes, concepts, and even text chapters; embedding them in small ways on a regular basis. She worked with the pacing guide, rather than “under” it. She knew that while math can be broken into topics (like algebra), she could see where there was overlap, and to her, that overlap was where it was most worth spending time.

Because she had been doing the work her students were doing for years she could keep her focus on the lesson in the moment. She also knew the math inside and out which helped her keep her mind on the content as a whole. She knew what was worth revisiting over and over.

The following chart shows one of the ways I learned to prioritize. By thinking across the year’s math concepts in topics I chose what I wanted my students to revisit again and again. The first column lists some main math concepts that span the elementary math grades. I realized that these concepts repeat year after year and allow students to go into more depth. The second column lists the priorities within each of the concepts I want to make sure my students and I get lots of practice with.

What are the key routines, topics and other mathematical practices you would prioritize across the year? There are some key examples in Pam and Shanna’s blogs in this series. No matter how many years you have under your belt, considering what to prioritize will give you the freedom to know you’re making a choice for your students with their whole year in mind.

I connect with the topic.

I noticed that some of the best teachers really care about their curriculum. They find it genuinely interesting. Their enthusiasm allows students to access the topic in a new way. Before I teach any lesson, I push myself to find something in it that I care about. For a while, making connections was particularly difficult for me in math because it created a lot of stress for me. I didn’t understand the larger purpose for what I was teaching which often made it boring.

It wasn’t easy to find what was innately interesting about place value for example. But in genuinely wondering with students in ways like, “Why do we even have place value?” “How does it even work?” or “Why is there a period in math!? I thought they were just for reading and writing,” we found our own connections to the topic. This strategy of asking many questions about the topic with students, uncovering our curiosity and bewilderment, allowed us to enter a topic with excitement.

Another way to connect is to bring the topic you are teaching into the context of real-life. Make it about something you actually care about. You don’t even have to try to fake it and make it into something you think your students care about it. Share your genuine interest and they will learn to do the same. For example, one colleague knows the ins-and-outs of college basketball. He regularly models bringing this interest into math instruction, showing his curiosity for the numbers. Students in his class learn to do the same with the numbers they see in their own interests which he then weaves into the class instruction.

To this day there’s always a chance I could get stuck with my head in the text late into the night, but I’m much better at catching this. The above strategies have helped me plan more efficiently. Whether you find yourself stuck, or are looking for a new way to approach your math planning, next time give one of these strategies a try.

John Altieri has worked as a wilderness therapy instructor, classroom teacher, and is now an instructional coach in Wyckoff, New Jersey.

Find him on Twitter @jpaltieri.